How an Engineer’s Desire to Keep His Keys Organized Led to a Business

How an Engineer's Desire to Keep His Keys Organized Led to a Business

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February 2020

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Michael Tunney used to keep a small keychain in his pocket, but he hated how the serrated metal continued to bite his leg. One night, while perched on a bar stool, the thirties noticed a long line of keys sitting above the bar. “Obviously,” he thought, “I’m not the only one facing this problem.” This idea led him to invent a new way to store keys: it’s called KeySmart, a battery that looks like a swiss army knife, which he made now as CEO of a 10-person business. Here’s how it went from bar to biz.

Step 1: Develop a prototype.

Tunney was a robotics engineer in the automotive industry and knew everything about prototyping. So he designed the first iteration of KeySmart just for himself. A friend suggested putting it on Kickstarter, and in 2013 he did – asking for a modest $ 6,000. Instead, he raised $ 330,000. Two months later, he quit his job and started working full-time on KeySmart in his basement.

2nd step: Hear the comments.

His Kickstarter backers provided a lot of advice, and Tunney took a lot – changing the details of the keys (size, edges and finishes) and increasing the number of keys it can accommodate (from four to 100, with an expander). “When it’s your baby, everything looks good,” he says. “But it’s good to have really critical people because things can always be better. This creates a state of constant improvement. “

Step 3: Spend what you need.

Tunney’s product is constructed from aircraft grade aluminum, titanium and stainless steel – ideal for strength, aesthetics and durability. As demand grew, he had a choice: spend more up front to stock up on materials, or start buying cheaper products. The second option “would make it easier, but it would be a very short term solution and a long term loss,” he says. So he started pre-buying the more expensive metals – first two months, then six – to avoid hiccups. He eventually increased the company’s inventory to 10 weeks of materials.

Step 4: Be patient.

KeySmart started out as a delusional Internet product, but Tunney tried to spread it widely – by meeting large retailers and always looking for new types of customers. After about three years, KeySmart’s distribution network has exploded: it now includes large chains (Walmart, Sears), niche retailers (Pep Boys, Badass Outdoors), and even computer stores and jewelers.

Step 5: Develop.

Tunney first created add-ons for stacks of keys, such as a USB drive and a bottle opener. But now he’s in full experimentation, prototyping with 3D printing equipment and looking for new ways to leverage the business relationships he has established. Last fall, KeySmart launched a group of new products, including the KeyCatch, a magnetic keychain. Several luxury jewelers grant licenses for its patents to create high-end and jewelry versions of KeySmarts, made of precious metals. It’s a new market that he’s just unlocked.

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